Four years after adopting conscription the UAE (United Arab Emirates) has increased the length of time conscripts must serve on active duty. Those with a high school education will serve at least 16 months and those who did not finish high school it will be 24 months. Back in 2014 implementing conscription was seen as a bold move for a wealthy Arab oil state. But the UAE felt they had no choice. Conscription was needed so the UAE could create a reserve force of trained citizens and thus be less dependent on mercenaries. Conscription is rare in Arabia, but the growing Iranian threat is causing many radical ideas to become acceptable. The main idea behind the UAE conscription plan is to get all qualified (for military service) Emirati men aged 18-30 trained so they can fight effectively if called up in an emergency. In effect, the UAE wants to emulate the Israeli system. Initially, the UAE only planned to keep conscripts in uniform for 9-24 months and that was mostly for training. College educated men would stay in longer and be trained as officers or technical experts. After that everyone will be in the reserves and organized into units that will train regularly for as long as they are able. That usually means for about twenty years. That was the plan and it was meant to be a work in progress because a lot of details were expected change as the program is implemented. The UAE goal is to have an armed force of 270,000 trained troops within days of mobilization. Before conscription the UAE relied on volunteers (a mixed bag) and mercenaries (very expensive and an ancient custom in the region).
The decision to adopt conscription got off to an uncomfortable start because by late 2015 there were angry UAE parents of sons who were recently killed in combat in Yemen. UAE customarily hires foreign mercenaries whenever possible but times have changed and some UAE families have not adapted. In late 2015 the UAE government has a public relations problem because hundreds of these conscript soldiers were sent to fight in Yemen and several had been killed and many more wounded. Families complained that their conscripted sons, none of whom have any combat experience, should not have been sent to a war zone. The parents were told that the only way to gain combat experience is by being in combat and that’s why their sons were conscripted in the first place. Moreover, most UAE citizens understand that the Shia rebels in Yemen are openly backed by Iran and this is just the sort of situation that conscription was instituted to deal with. But the grim consequences are another matter.
The UAE troops in Yemen initially comprised about half the strength of the hastily formed mechanized combat brigade. This unit initially had about 3,000 troops and over a hundred armored vehicles and landed Yemen in mid-2015. This unit came to be called the Arab Brigade because about half the rest of brigade was largely Saudi. Since then troops from other nations, including Sudan, have joined. But initially UAE and Saudi troops were seen as best suited for the job because many of the troops had family ties to Yemen and knowledge of local dialects and customs. The Yemen family connections of many of the UAE soldiers was one reason the conscripts were sent. The brigade arrived via the port of Aden in early August and immediately joined the fight. The Arab Brigade was apparently responsible for many of the subsequent victories of the Yemeni government forces. Three years later the fighting is still going on and the rebels are losing but not yet defeated. The Arab Brigade keeps its casualties down by relying on the modern air forces the UAE and Saudi Arabia have and using a lot of smart bombs to hammer the resourceful and elusive rebels. The smart bombs have also killed a lot of civilians but that is easier to deal with than a lot of dead soldiers being shipped back home for funerals attended by unhappy families. The UAE and Saudi Arabia also convinced many other (generally less wealthy) Moslem nations to send ground forces with assurances that they would be well-taken care. If wounded, all medical expenses would be paid. If martyred (the favorite Moslem term for “killed in combat” for any legitimate cause) the families would be well taken care of.
The fighting in Yemen revealed a lot of other interesting details of the UAE armed forces. Soon after the Arab Brigade arrived in Yemen, UAE commandos found and rescued a British citizen who had been held captive by Islamic terrorists for 18 months. This was one of the few times the UAE admitted publicly that it had a SOC (Special Operations Command) and commandos capable of finding and rescuing someone held captive by Islamic terrorists. The UAE has been particularly secretive about its special operations force. What is known is that since 2008 the UAE has been actively trying to upgrade and expand its special operations capabilities. One of the new units established (in 2010) was a Presidential Guard Command (PGC). This was described as a “best of the best” unit containing the most reliable and capable troops the UAE had. There are only about 5,000 troops in the PGC and most of them appear to be in the even more mysterious SOC (Special Operations Command).
The UAE has been trying to train its own citizens for special operations ever since they found out how effective Arab special operations troops had been in Afghanistan and Iraq. But by 2010 the UAE appeared to be recruiting non-Moslem foreigners for a special security battalion that was more “royal guard” than SOC. By 2011 this battalion of 800 troops and was composed of Western contractors who were already combat veterans. This force was recruited from men who had combat experience and were then organized as a counter-terrorism and rapid reaction force. Officially this new battalion was to provide security for key facilities in UAE but that may have just been a cover story. Apparently, there was also special operations training for some of the men in the “contractor” battalion. Some of these foreign troops already had special operations training and experience in their home country. Many Colombian combat veterans were known to be in the UAE unit. It is unclear if the UAE commandos in Yemen were all UAE citizens or largely men from the contractor battalion or even special operations troops from foreign countries wearing UAE uniforms. It is known that the head of the PGC is a retired Australian general who spent most of his career in special operations. Since 2015 the UAE has expanded its special operations training program for UAE troops and these have been successful going after al Qaeda and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) Islamic terrorists in some of the more remote parts of the country. These Islamic terrorists are Sunni and not working with the rebels but they will be a problem in post-war Yemen and having UAE commandos go after them now is an opportunity that will not be available once the civil war is over.
The “contractor” battalion and many other members of the PGC were but a small portion of the many foreigners already serving in the UAE armed forces. Hiring foreign mercenaries, to ensure that the rulers are protected by troops who are the most skilled and reliable, is an old custom in the region. Actually, it used to be a widespread practice worldwide. Some Western nations, like the Vatican, still retains foreign mercenaries. In this case, it's the Swiss Guards, which the popes have been using for over 500 years ago because the locals were too often unreliable.
The UAE has been trying to reduce their reliance on foreign mercenaries for a long time. A part of that program was a 2011 decision to give military retirees a 70 percent increase in their pensions. The active-duty armed forces only consisted of 65,000 troops, and for a long time, many of them were foreigners. But now, most of the military retirees are locals, and the aristocrats that run the place want to make sure that these older men, with military experience, remained loyal. This was particularly true with all the calls for tossing out existing rulers that has been going on throughout the Arab world during the “Arab Spring” uprisings that broke out in 2011. Actually, taking good care of military veterans has become increasingly important in nations that are prone to civil disorder or revolution. Military veterans can turn the disorder into a well-organized rebellion. This is especially true in the UAE, where only 20 percent of the population are citizens, the others are foreigners imported to help spend all that money and make the economy work.
The UAE is a confederation of seven small Arab states (Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain) at the southern end of the Persian Gulf. With a population of only 5.6 million, and large oil and gas deposits, the Emirates have a per-capita income of over $40,000. Thus the UAE has a lot to defend, and an increasingly belligerent neighbor just across the Gulf. The UAE controls one side the entrance to the Gulf (the Straits of Hormuz). Iran is on the other end, and both nations dispute ownership of some islands in the middle.
The UAE wants to defend itself from potential Iranian aggression. To that end, they have become the third largest importer of weapons in the world and the largest in the Middle East. In the Middle East, the UAE imports 50 percent more weapons than Israel. This includes high priced items like the American THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile systems, U.S. F-16s and French Mirage 2000-9 fighters. Other recent aircraft purchases include ten U.S. C-13oJ and four C-17 transports. Then there are munitions, thousands of American laser and GPS guided bombs. Several warships are also on the way.
The UAE also spent nearly a billion dollars to put up four radar satellites. The GulfSAR (synthetic aperture radar) satellites will use an orbit that will cover an area 43 degrees north and south of the Equator. The UAE is also spending billions on armored vehicles, artillery and other equipment for their ground forces. More billions being spent on bases, training, support and logistics.
Despite all the imported weapons UAE never forgot that the ultimate weapon was the guy on the ground willing to fight to protect the emirates.